1. Rice is part of China’s cultural legacy, and building a rice patty is demanding, exacting, and complicated work. This was also work that many lives depended on. In southern Chinese villages, rice is a crucial facet of society.
Gladwell turns to another very specific cultural legacy: rice farming in China. The reader can anticipate that this chapter (based on its title) will show that this cultural legacy has an effect on a child’s ability to succeed in math.
2. Gladwell moves from his brief discussion of rice paddies to a discussion of the Chinese numbers system. It is highly regular, following simple rules without exceptions. As a result, Chinese children can learn to count to 40 two years earlier than American children on average. The system is what psychologists call “transparent.” The rules are clear enough for very young children to understand counting, addition, and multiplication much more easily. Children who grow up speaking an Asian language have a built-in advantage. But what if that isn’t the only advantage Chinese students have when it comes to math? Could the rice paddies make a difference in the classroom?
One of the potential reasons for the dominance of Chinese students on math tests is the fact that their language (a key part of cultural heritage) makes numbers and mathematical concepts more accessible to a young child’s brain. And we know already that success as a child helps to foster success as an adult: accumulated advantage for Chinese math students might start with their language itself.
3. Rice farmers have had to work harder than every other farmer. Growing rice requires perfectionism and constant vigilance. There are no vacations. The days are long with no exception. And the harder a farmer works to optimize his rice paddy, the more rice that paddy will produce. Some estimate that the average workload of a wet-rice farmer in Asia is three thousand hours a year.
But what about the legacy of rice farming? Already we can begin to see how this legacy would give children with southern Chinese heritage an advantage: it is characterized by hard, engaging, intellectually rigorous work, and it necessarily involves many, many hours of practice.
4. This, like the garment work previously discussed, is meaningful work. It is difficult, requires a great deal of dedication and problem solving, and effort is directly linked to reward. In order to be a rice farmer, you have to care deeply about your work. Chinese peasant proverbs underscore this fact: proverbial wisdom in Chinese history repeatedly comes back around to the idea that hard work leads to a better life, that persistence is key, and that sacrifice is necessary.
The most important point to gather from this section is that rice farming has led to a cultural belief in China that hard work leads to success. This, we will see, if of crucial importance when it comes to succeeding in school.
5-6. Researchers have found that one of the most reliable predictors of whether or not a student will be good at math is not their IQ or the quality of their schooling. It is their willingness to complete tasks carefully. In one study, when students were given a long and tedious questionnaire, the students who rushed through and skipped questions along the way performed consistently worse on mathematical exams than students who carefully completed the questionnaire without taking shortcuts. In a country shaped by wet rice farming like China, where “doggedness is not the exception but a cultural trait,” perhaps it is not surprising that students tend to be better at math.
Though we often think of facility with math to be a kind of innate trait, it turns out that being good at math is a lot like being good at piloting: math skills are not the only thing that matters. In fact, persistence is an excellent predictor of someone’s math skills. This makes the cultural legacy of rice farming all the more relevant to mathematical skill—they both require dedication, persistence, and lots of practice to perfect.